The Hall is Full of Noises

Over at Disquiet, since the beginning of the year, Marc Weidenbaum has been issuing a challenge each week. Every Thursday night he invites anyone who feels so inclined to record a short composition in accordance with a set of simple instructions, which they must upload to SoundCloud by the following Monday.

The Disquiet Junto is a remarkable project which has so far prompted over 1200 contributions from over 200 individuals, involving the manipulation of live performance, field recordings, computer-generated sounds and pre-existing sound-clips. The results are often astonishing, beautiful, strange or amusing, and always unpredictable, no doubt surprising the creators themselves as much as their listeners. It has given rise to an amazing community of sonic enthusiasts, enterprising, friendly and curious.

I’ve been inspired to throw together a few submissions of my own. And recently, the challenge entitled Sounds from Silence (issued on 26 July) got me thinking of another. Here was the brief:

This week’s project deals with the concept of silence — specifically recorded silence. We will take a segment of audio that is intended to signify silence, and then from it make an original piece of music.

Step 1: Select a segment of recorded sound that would generally be perceived as silent. Examples include: the gap between tracks on a tape cassette or vinyl record, the noise your laptop’s headphone jack emits when nothing is playing, the quietest moment in an MP3, a radio signal when nothing is supposed to be heard.

Step 2: Amplify or otherwise magnify that supposed absence of sound until it makes a perceivable noise.

Step 3: Compose, perform, and record a new original piece of music that takes this sound as its sole source material. You can manipulate the original audio as you see fit, but you can’t add other pre-existing audio elements to it.

As it happened, on the Saturday, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was also celebrating John Cage’s 100th birthday with a concert at City Halls, Glasgow Had I been more prepared I might have entertained the idea of recording the performance with the intention of reworking some of the ‘silences’ together along the lines suggested.

But I arrived straight from a party in honour of another birthday – that of my younger niece and nephew – and didn’t have time to go home and pick up any equipment. In any case, the custodians of the hall might not have appreciated the finer points of my plan had they caught me in flagrant delicto and I didn’t want to be escorted shamefully from the premises.

Still, it affected the way I listened to the concert, which presented a wide range of works including the Concerto for Prepared Piano (1951) (soloist: John Tilbury), ear for EAR (Antiphonies) (1983), Atlas Eclipticalis (1962), and the (somewhat notorious) Child of Tree (1975) in which conductor Ilan Volkov, alone on stage, plucked and prodded a selection of amplifed cacti with what looked like a cocktail stick.

Although they were composed at very different stages of his career, all the pieces struck me as written sparingly. They were dense in places, but never very loud or busy. The music – like a diaphonous fabric – allowed the ear, as it were, to breathe. It reminded me of the frustrations I felt as a teenage listener of Radio Three’s Music in Our Time in the mid 1970s that seemed to settle into an orthodoxy of delicate, precious, shimmering clusters of notes, harmonics and gilssandi that never really got going, never quite managed to set the body a-tingle. It was all so damned cerebral.

You can imagine, perhaps, my glorious sense of relief when I first heard the jerky cacophony of free improvisers Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Paul Lytton when they played to an audience of less than a dozen in a small room above the Art Shop in Blackburn, Lancashire. A door opened on other worlds and I thought I would never look back.

This time, there was no frustration. I became fascinated by the way the relatively low volume afforded no cover for the audience’s compelling need to make noises. In the absence of loud passages in which to bury coughs and sneezes or substantial changes of posture, these semi-voluntary spasms and twitches were forced into the open, requiring inventive – but still quite audible – modes of suppression, modulation and camouflage.

A woman behind me couldn’t resist the temptation to zip and unzip her boots – producing an intermittent rasp of metal and squeak of leather. I detected the occasional scratch of nail on fabric and flesh, an intriguing showcase of murmurs, sighs and snorts, air vibrating in nostrils, the inadvertent contact of feet with bags or clothes on the floor. I began to make out the ticking of a watch or two. Now and again, a door behind me winced apologetically. From somewhere high up came the distant squawks of Glasgow’s seagulls.

But the musicians themselves also became part of this army of incidentalists. There is an attractive arbitrariness in the performance of works that rely so much on non-standard sources of sound (the pouring of water, the tearing of paper, the interference of piano strings with metal and rubber) when musicians try hard – as they are trained to do – to make their un-scored movements (replacing drum-sticks on a table, turning pages of music, repositioning chairs) as quietly as possible.

Improvisation III (1980) required the performers to occupy seats in the auditorium and operate portable cassette players. One of them (I recognized him as Nick Fells) was just ahead of me, depressing the play, stop and eject buttons and removing and inserting tapes as unobtrusively as he could, but – my attention focused the way it was – these machine sounds preoccupied me more than the recordings projected by the speakers.

In another context, this kind of listening would have been wilfully perverse. But at a Cage concert it is almost obligatory. I came away rejuvenated but with no clear idea how I might tackle the Junto, and the deadline passed before I could think any more about it.

Then, a week later I found myself with half an hour to spare one evening and decided to try and recreate the ‘silences’ at home, using what materials I had to hand. I set up my digital recorder and stereo microphone and gently placed plastic salad servers on the sideboard, opened doors, moved chairs, tried different kinds of muffled coughs, played with zips, crossed my legs, walked carefully up and down the bare floorboards (but not in knee-length boots), tinkered with my old cassette deck and – last but not at all least – breathed in and out.

Editing the file, I created a dozen samples, and mixed them together crudely, looping some of them, bringing them all one by one into the melting pot and then out again. And here it is. The sonic residue from the concert – its smoke and ash, if you will – not preserved, exactly, but reinterpreted. A cover version of what will almost certainly be carefully excised from the recording of the performance when it is broadcast by the BBC later this year. Headphones essential.

 

Unwaving the Flag

I have never been greatly interested in the Olympics. It is partly because most of the sports I enjoy watching are either not represented (cricket, at least not since 1900) or peak elsewhere (football, cycling); and partly because of the ways in which the games have been increasingly suffocated by political corruption, commercial sponsorship and militarised security. So I made no special effort to watch the opening ceremony of London 2012 the other week.

But I didn’t miss it completely. On Twitter it was hard to avoid, as several dozen of those accounts I follow commented on the unfolding spectacle on their TV screens. Many of them I expected to be cynical of what was surely going to be a state-sponsored festival of Britishness: monocultural, jingoistic, Conservative. But this was not the case, and no one was more surprised than the tweeters themselves who (rather grudgingly) admitted that the performance delighted them.

That the ceremony found fans as different as Richard Williams in the Guardianand Tim Stanley in the Telegraph suggests that Danny Boyle managed to achieve what many progressive cultural critics have been dreaming of for years: that the Left reclaim Britishness from the Right. Even the notorious tweet by Aidan Burley MP (‘Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multi-cultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!’) might have been scripted by Boyle, given the crucial role it played in reinforcing this new consensus. Of course the Daily Mail disagreed – but even they were forced to tone down some of their fanatical remarks.

I’m still not sure, though. I’ve never felt particularly at home with the idea of Britishness. The soundtrack of my childhood was not television but the Third Programme, now Radio Three, BBC’s flagship classical music station. As I absorbed the standard repertoire (all those B’s – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz, Bartok, Britten…), it soon became obvious that the British contribution to that canon was modest, to say the least. And maybe that nurtured a cosmopolitan spirit that deepened as I got older.

Of course, there was always the Home Service – later renamed Radio Four – which remains tied to a certain notion (a very English notion much of the time) of Britishness, even while its borders are becoming more elastic. And when I began to buy books and records of my own, there was a pattern that suggests that I was caught in its gravitational pull. I was an avid reader of World War II classics such as Reach for the Sky and enjoyed fiction like Lord of the Rings and Watership Down. The first album I bought was Tubular Bells and Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeiishaped my adolescence even more than ‘Carry On’ films. (These titles are – like God Save the Queen – all choriambs. I wonder if there is something in that).

But by the time I was doing my ‘O’ Levels in 1975, I was clearly venturing further afield. I had begun working my way through Dante, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in my dad’s collection of black-spined Penguin Classics (by definition, not originally written in English). I pestered my local bookshop for Ginsberg and Kerouac, and was amazed to find some introductions to Buddhism, and hardback volume of Whitman on the shelves at home. From a lyrical passage in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn I followed a trail to the early twentieth-century modernisms, especially Dada, which – soon to be revived in the ethos and aesthetics of punk – framed what passed for my intellectual horizons in my last year at school.

This isn’t in itself an argument against the Opening Ceremony. It’s not even saying that embracing Britishness prevents you from appreciating ‘other cultures’. I found my own discomfort liberating: it opened doors, made me more curious to seek out things that teachers and television presenters ignored. But if I’d been more patriotic, would I never have discovered the pleasures of U-Roy or Francis Picabia as a teenager?

I felt Jenny Diski struck a chord when she confessed her lack of enthusiasm for ‘collective joy’. And I shared something of her scepticism towards the Ceremony’s alleged achievement. But despite the criticism of the nostalgic, backward-looking character of the pageant, I got the feeling that she still believed in the possibility of a radical Britishness that really would make a difference. If only it had been a bit more confrontational, visionary, utopian…

And for this she was rebuked by Norman Geras who thought she burdened the event with unrealistic expectations:

It is hard to imagine how an opening ceremony for the London Olympics could, just in itself, have transformed the politics of this country, so that the morning after, all the objectives that Jenny Diski favours would have been hugely assisted or brought forward. This wasn’t, mainly, a political event – a campaign, a set of reforms, a new party programme or movement.

And he detected

a subtext here according to which for people simply to enjoy themselves is somehow not enough if there’s no political payoff. Shall we watch ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ tonight? Ooh, I’m not sure – what would it do for the struggle? Hey, why are you singing a love song? There’s surely still stuff we need to protest about, and songs can do that too, you know. And so on.

But for me the problem is not that the ceremony did too little, but that it did too much. It seems a little disingenuous to compare it to a Hollywood musical. After all, when almost all the commentators felt obliged to read the event as the latest contribution to the century-and-a-half series on ‘the condition of England’, its political implications can hardly be trivial.

The thing about Britishness, though, is that however multicultural, it is still a notion tied to a nation state that goes to great lengths to keep people out. The United Kingdom is not alone in being defended by stringent and discriminatory immigration controls, and excessive powers to detain or expel those defined as outsiders or monitor and restrict the movement and activity of those who even look like outsiders. But ‘Britishness’ must take some responsibility for the way in which the right to belong here and make full use of the opportunities on offer is predicated on a sense of national identity, an allegiance to a required – if heterogenous – set of affective or ideological ties shared with everyone else in the country.

Would radicalising Britishness undermine the racial discriminations on which the kingdom seems to thrive? Would it do anything to stop the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society from bearing the brunt of what – in a triumph of spin that masks its fundamental difference from, say, wartime rationing – is blandly called ‘austerity’? Would it even have helped the 182 cyclists who were arrested on the monthly ‘Critical Mass’ ride as they passed close by the Stadium during this apparently ground-breaking ceremony? I doubt it. Whatever its content, ‘Britishness’ is a fungal infection that we ought to stop feeding.

Local and regional identities don’t have anything like the same power to exclude others. They certainly don’t have the same purchase on social policy or the criminal justice system. Being Scouse or Geordie is not about common values or ancestry but something that emerges from the shared experience of inhabiting the same space and perhaps a way of speaking. And even nation-states don’t need their citizens to identify with it in order to function. Look at Scotland. The SNP’s case for independence (such as it is) is being made not on cultural grounds (appealing to those who feel Scottish, think of themselves as Scottish more than anything else) but because an independent scotland would be fairer, more democractic, more accountable, dare I say more modern place to live.

The opening ceremony did not have to be a celebration of ‘Britishness’. It could have simply celebrated sport (perhaps allowing itself a little dig at the Olympic grandees by dwelling on some activities – like rugby or karate or women’s canoeing – it does not yet recognize). (Maybe even a bit of Indian Dancing). Or it could have created a series of tableaux that represented all the previous games – with its controversies (the black power salute in Mexico 1968) and tragedies (the massacre at Munich in 1972) as well as triumphs (Jesse Owens in Berlin 1936). Criticizing that would have been puritanical.

The Playparks Project: A Proposal

Again: the toddler’s favourite word. For, as Walter Benjamin reminded us, children are much more inclined to repetition than imitation. And so, with little more than a chiastic reversal of the vowel sounds, what would happen if we turned the Arcades Project into the Playparks Project?

Walter Benjamin never visited Scotland. But he was aware of its existence. In his Small History of Photography he applauded the work of David Octavius Hill, who famously depicted the 1843 Disruption of the Church of Scotland. And for one of his radio talks he chose the subject of the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879. Of Glasgow, however, I have found nothing.

Yet my gamble is that if it is possible to shed important light on the 19th Century through a thick description of the shopping arcades of Paris, then why not try to capture the secret of the 21st by dwelling in Glasgow’s playparks?

Part of the attraction of the arcade for Benjamin was its academic marginality: it suited well his belief in the redemptive power of the overlooked and unfashionable. Now that Benjamin is well-known, and has posthumously acquired more than just the academic post that so eluded him during his lifetime, the lowly objects of his study are lowly no more. I’m an arcade, get me out of here, I can almost hear it scream.

So it’s time to upgrade, and set our sights on a phenomenon still neglected by the trendy cultural theorists. Indeed the whole realm of childhood and childcare seems largely to pass them by, happily consigned to psychology and social policy. If it is now permitted for Benjamin’s flâneur to be a woman, we are still waiting for studies of the wandering parent – the prâmeur if you will – who probably botanises the asphalt more than anyone.

While Benjamin may not have been much of a ‘hands on’ dad – and he probably saw even less of his son after his divorce in 1930 when Stefan was twelve – he actually took a keen interest in children. He collected (and wrote essays on) toys and children’s books. He wrote two memoirs of his own early years in Berlin, collected his son’s opinions et pensées in a journal, and his work in general is sprinkled with remarks on the distinctive sensibility of the very young. Gershom Scholem wrote:

It is one of Benjamin’s most important characteristics that throughout his life he was attracted with almost magical force by the child’s world and ways. This world was one of the persistent and recurring themes of his reflections, and, indeed, his writings on this subject are among his most perfect pieces.1

His radio talks for children have been the subject of a book by Jeffrey Mehlman.2Howard Caygill has suggested that it was Benjamin’s reflections on the child’s experience of colour that prompted him to question Kant’s philosophy and elaborate his own, alternative, speculative critique of experience.3 And, according to Susan Buck-Morss, ‘what Benjamin found in the child’s consciousness, badgered out of existence by bourgeois education and so crucial to redeem (albeit in new form), was precisely the unsevered connection between perception and action that distinguished revolutionary consciousness in adults.’4

That’s my excuse anyway for stepping out and daring to offer some dispatches from the ludic archipelago in Scotland’s largest city.

Notes

  1. Gershom Scholem, ‘Walter Benjamin’ in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays, ed. Werner J Dannhauser (New York: Schocken, 1976), p175.
  2. Jeffrey Mehlman, Walter Benjamin for Children: An Essay on His Radio Years(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
  3. Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), pp83-85.
  4. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989), p263.

Jamaica Kincaid: Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya

Jamaica Kincaid
Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya
Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2005

 

 

For those who know Jamaica Kincaid from the opening salvo of A Small Place – a withering put-down of the tourists who descend on her island, blithely oblivious of what it is like to live there – this may come as a big surprise.

Among Flowers is an account of a trek she made in Nepal, for the purpose of collecting seeds she could plant in her garden in Vermont. She and her three companions are guided by sherpas and supported by a team of porters (whose names she can never remember) who do their best to meet their demand for creature comforts and keep them safe from the attentions of ‘Maoists’ (caricatured as menacing or infantile throughout) who threaten to spoil their vacation.

It is not easy to believe that they were written by the same person. Perhaps she has gotten more conservative as she has gotten older. It’s not unheard of. Or perhaps we would find it more reassuring to believe that if the first was sincere, the second must be ironic.

I’m not convinced.

In one village she refers to the way she becomes the object of curious attention. ‘One woman did make me understand that she thought I was wearing a mask, that my face was not my real face,’ she writes. Maybe this is Kincaid reminding her readers that authors always ‘wear a mask’, whether it be that of the outraged local or the self-absorbed tourist. In each case, it is as if she is adopting a deliberately exaggerated persona and pushing it as far as it can go.

The first-person protagonist of this story is not unaware of the disparities of power and wealth that separate elite travellers from the people they meet (and rely on). Indeed, her disarming tendency to admit how much she moaned about the facilities or felt let down by the porters brings them into sharper relief than an account by a more ‘sensitive’ traveller who might have made more effort to appear to ‘fit in’.

But even when she consciously reflects on these disparities – for example when she contrasts her own perspective with that of the Nepalese (what for her is treasure may be weeds to them, what is ornament, food, and what is exciting and new, dull and quotidian) – it is the way that these reflections unconsciously rob them of the possibility of finer feeling that is telling rather than the prosaic truth they express.

Above all, that these reflections never prompt searching questions of a moral or political nature – while a Communist rebellion gathers pace around her – may be more eloquent in its silence than an approach that offers simple solutions.

For this reason, I think the ‘tourist’ identity Kincaid assumes in the Himalayas exposes contradictions and paradoxes much more effectively than the ‘local’ identity she assumes in Antigua. Whether this is a deliberate strategy is another question, and possibly an irrelevant one.

History

One of the final touches to the flat before flinging it open to the unsuspecting property-vultures was to replace the floor covering in the kitchen closet. This is what was underneath the old linoleum.

These are pages from a newspaper from September 1915, not long after this tenement was built. I don’t suppose whoever put them there intended to let them fester until they resembled a Kurt Schwitters collage, and if they did they left them too long to be able to claim to have invented Dada a year before Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara got together at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.

Given the date I was expecting details of a military campaign but instead the news is dominated by the recall of Konstantin Dumba, the last Austro-Hungarian ambassador to the United States, following accusations of espionage.

I was not familiar with this episode of the First World War and had to look it up. I couldn’t find any link between Dumba and Glasgow, but when I told someone the story at work, I was surprised to learn that before the war the Austro-Hungarian empire was represented here by the famous shipping magnate and art collector William Burrell who held the post of consul until 1906, according to the Dictionary of National Biography.

It seems unlikely the two ever met (Dumba was serving as Minister to Serbia at the time) and Burrell’s acquaintance with Central Europe may not have been extensive, if the recollections of an encounter in 1932 are to be believed. This was on the occasion of the first visit to Glasgow by Béla Bartók who was a guest of the Scottish composer Erik Chisholm (himself sometimes compared to Bartók as a modernist who drew extensively on the idioms of his country’s folk and traditional music).

Chisholm’s wife, Diana, recalled:

When we knew Bartók was coming to Glasgow to stay with us, the first thing, which worried us, was – language difficulty. None of us, of course, could speak one word of Hungarian. Would our famous guest be any better with English? I immediately bought an ‘English-cum-Hungarian’ dictionary, (by the time I left Scotland I had entertained so many continental composers, musicians, and singers, that I had a very comprehensive collection of ‘English-cums’). I pictured myself standing on the station platform anxiously scanning the face of every male, who, in my opinion, looked ‘foreign’, and gesticulating wildly with the dictionary. However, I was rescued (or thought I was) from this predicament by the Hungarian Consul in Glasgow, Sir William Burrell, who telephoned me the day before Bartók’s arrival to say that he also would like to come to the station to receive this distinguished visitor from Hungary.

‘Luck’, I thought, ‘this lets me out’. So you can imagine my disappointment, when, on meeting Sir William a few minutes before the train was due to arrive (8.35 p.m. on February 28 1932), he said he hoped that either my husband or I could speak Hungarian because he could not.

‘Well’, I said laughingly, ‘you’re the official representative so you can get on with it.’ But we need not have worried. When the Flying Scotsman arrived and the passengers alighted from the train it was quite simple to recognise him. There was only one Béla Bartók! A small white-haired man, wearing a black Homburg hat, thick black coat with a heavy Astrakhan collar and armed with a music case in one hand and an umbrella in the other. Who I wondered had forewarned him about Glasgow’ s weather?

Sir William went forward at once to greet him, and I swear I saw a look of relief flit across the consul’s face when Bartók said in a softly spoken, broken English accent, ‘Bartók is my name’. After that all went smoothly. Later in the day, my husband and I admitted to each other that we had both felt ashamed that not one of the party who came to receive him could reply to him in his language, least of all the Consul.1

Whether Sir William was still the Consul at that time I have been unable to confirm. I don’t know a word of Hungarian either, although I did find something else when I was clearing out the flat. I had not opened my copy of Bartók’s 44 Duos for two violins in more than thirty years.

In a fit of insanity I disturbed my violin out of hibernation. The downstairs neighbours must have been grateful the episode was very brief.

Notes

  1. Erik Chisholm, ‘Béla Bartók: The Shy Genius’, available for download from the Erik Chisholm website.

Jamaica Kincaid: My Garden (Book):

A quotation from Kirkus Review on the back cover of my copy calls this book ‘quirky’. This is true, on different levels.

Perhaps the most distinctive formal feature is the deliberately excessive use of parentheses, as if the author has set herself the task of illustrating all the different purposes they can serve (clarifying an ambiguous pronoun, glossing an unusual word or phrase, explanation, qualification, specification of relationship, narrative digression, and so on), extending to the very title. It lends these essays an informal, conversational character – often marked by sudden changes of direction or swings of mood.

But the subject matter is highly unusual too. All the essays draw on Kincaid’s experiences as an amateur gardener but it is no more a book about gardening than Beyond a Boundary is about cricket. ‘What do they know of gardening who only gardening know?’ could easily be its epigraph. If it is eloquent on the ways in which the gardener can take delight in the ‘vexations and agitations’ of her craft, and on the impulses that attract her to some plants and repel her from others, My Garden (book) offers various historical and cross-cultural perspectives that make for uncomfortable and provocative reading.

She dwells – some might say perversely – on the quotidian details of buying and selling, underlining the broader economic networks in which she operates (including her own privilege as the owner of a large house in Vermont who can afford domestic help). Having grown up in the Caribbean she is keenly aware of how precious the aesthetic pleasures of the domestic garden are when set alongside the mercenary priorities of plantation agriculture on the one hand and the imperialist ‘botany thieves’ (and the Latin nomenclature they imposed) on the other.

There are few moments of tranquility here. Her reflections on Spring are punctuated by the killing (or fantasies of killing) rabbits, snakes, bugs and slugs, but the contradictions are sharpest in the longest essay in the book, ‘Plant Hunting in China’. As Kincaid describes the organized tour – her attention largely absorbed by the behaviour of her fellow-travellers, the unvarying diet of ‘pork, pork, pork, pork’, and the unsanitary conditions and practices she observes (and must herself occasionally endure) – she comes close to occupying the position of the tourist she famously despises in A Small Place. It certainly seems to confirm that she has now (as she puts it in another essay) ‘joined the conquering classes.’ And here perhaps any comparison with C L R James breaks down. But the book leaves us with much to reflect on.

Remembering the Freedom Riders

In 1961 Mother’s Day in the United States fell on May 14th. Two groups of civil rights campaigners were half way through the second week of their bus journeys south from Washington, designed to test a Supreme Court decision of the previous year that declared the segregation of inter-state transportation unconstitutional.

With the black and white passengers deliberately sitting together, and ignoring the signs that directed them to different facilities at rest stops, they expected to face suspicion and hostility, but apart from an ugly incident in Rock Hill, South Carolina, they had not run into any serious trouble. But in Alabama, things suddenly turned nasty.

As it left Anniston, the Greyhound bus was pursued by a convoy of angry whites who, when it pulled over for a flat tyre, attacked the vehicle, set it ablaze, and assaulted passengers as they emerged from the smoke. The Trailways bus, carrying the second group, arrived later and, after on-board segregation was forcibly established, were allowed to continue to Birmingham, where many of the passengers were brutally set upon by members of a large crowd which was waiting for them.

Shaken and injured the campaigners were nevertheless determined to continue to Montgomery the next day. But when the Alabama authorities refused to guarantee their safety, the riders reluctantly agreed to complete their journey to New Orleans by plane. Thus ended the first Freedom Ride.

When I wrote a piece recently on two writers – John Lewis and Gary Younge – who had revisited the sites of some of the most momentous scenes of that first ride, in what I argued were politicized variants of the popular ‘footsteps’ genre of travel writing, I looked for an appropriate image to illustrate it, and found this:

Historic marker at 4th Avenue N and 19th St N, Birmingham, Alabama: photo by kschlot1

The marker was erected in 1995, close to the site of the old Trailways bus terminal (now occupied, somewhat inevitably, by a bank). The site of the bus burning in Anniston was memorialized in 2007, although both were privately funded: evidence perhaps of Alabama’s official reluctance to come to terms with parts of its past it would prefer to forget.

But what I didn’t immediately notice about the plaque is how inaccurate and misleading it is. That it refers to the Greyhound, rather than Trailways, terminal is perhaps of no great consequence, although it must surely puzzle those passers-by who know that the Greyhound terminal is several blocks north and must wonder why the marker is placed here and not there.

The use of the word ‘youth’, though, demands a little more attention. Not only is it simply misleading to imply that the riders were all young people – five of the fifteen riders who arrived in Birmingham that day were over 40 (indeed three of them were over 50) – it’s a very curious choice when applying it to a very specific group of individuals, for it is neither a plural nor a collective noun. It is as if in the struggle to find a wording that everyone would find acceptable, no one knew what to call them.

The ‘klansmen’ who attacked them have a certain familiarity, as do the ‘police’ who stood by and watched, and yet – perhaps to compensate for this reckless admission of official collusion – the riders themselves become a strangely disembodied, abstract entity, the personification of one of the stages of life. It makes it easier for us to feel the kind of sympathy that is born of condescension rather than solidarity; it marks them as immature, easily swayed by manipulative others (the acronym CORE – surely opaque to many who read the notice – serving perfectly in this respect).

Above all, it codes them as feminine in contrast to those hyper-masculine thugs who participated in their humiliation. Or it would, if it weren’t for that final clause that suddenly and unexpectedly has them ‘standing their ground’ – a phrase that has circulated with particular speed these last few weeks, but which for a century or more has conjured up the image of an armed white patriarch defending his private property against intruders. Here, in a brilliant twist, it is being used to honour non-violent protesters (black, white, male, female) seeking to assert their right to occupy public spaces together.

Evidently, there is more than one way to stand your ground.

Jamaica Kincaid: A Small Place

Who is speaking in this book? There are several voices here and while their utterances may readily be described as heartfelt or brutally honest, they also feel slightly contrived. It is as if A Small Place is an exercise in invective rather than an expression of it.

I was prompted to re-read A Small Place after being introduced to Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba. These letters from defiant young revolutionaries addressed to North American readers were actually written by a US sociologist. C Wright Mills begins and ends the book with reflections of his own, but the narrator in the main body of the text is a composite persona he created on the basis of extensive interviews during his visit to the island in 1960.

Kincaid grew up in Antigua so she is not an outsider like Mills. But she left the island at an early age and by the time she came to write A Small Place she had lived in the United States for nearly thirty years, and so to begin her essay as a native (who gives no indication of ever having been abroad) addressing the reader as a hypothetical tourist arriving in her country is to adopt an identity almost as fictional as Mills’.

And the point of view is equally heterogeneous. If the first part offers a sarcastic assault on the ignorance of the tourist (the most striking, most enjoyable part of the book, the one that most readers remember), the second turns on the white settler elite of colonial Antigua (flavoured with childhood reminiscences), and the target of the third is the corrupt alliance of big business and government that replaced it following independence. Gradually the voice shifts from that of a local who can do nothing but pour scorn on the wealthy visitor to that of an educated outsider who despairs that ordinary Antiguans seem to acquiesce in this new state of affairs, and are unwilling to take responsibility for themselves. By the end the narrator has shed all traces of solidarity with her fellow-islanders, referring to them in the third person: ‘Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.’

There is a hint of an alternative future for the Caribbean, one that builds on the dream of democracy represented by the founding of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union in 1939 and Maurice Bishop’s revolution in Grenada. But characteristically it is Bishop’s fate – ‘at the hands of the Americans’ – that closes off these reflections rather than the uprising against the Duvalier dictatorship two years before the book was published (at the end of the essay Baby Doc still seems to be in power). And so A Small Place ends, calling for Antiguans to develop ‘a different relationship with the world, a more demanding relationship, a relationship in which they are not victims’, but giving little sign that this is likely to happen.

The passion of the book is superficial, for this cynicism empties its passion of any force. ‘And so look at this prolonged visit to the bile duct that I am making, look at how bitter, how dyspeptic just to sit and think about these things makes me,’ she writes. Is there not something unreliable about a narrator who is so archly self-conscious about her own moves? Kincaid declines and conjugates rage in a way that leaves me rather cold.

C Wright Mills: Listen Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba

Reporting on his 1960 visit to Cuba, C Wright Mills did not write a conventional travelogue or journalistic account. He chose to have his book narrated by a composite Cuban revolutionary, and it consists of a series of letters addressed to his North American readers. ‘Most of the words are mine,’ Mills writes in his introduction, ‘– although not all of them; the arguments, the tone, the interpretations, the tang and feel – they are in the main directly Cuban. I have merely organized them – in the most direct and immediate fashion of which I am capable.’

The result is a powerful defence of the revolution, which calls upon its readers in the US to challenge the ‘Yankee imperialism’ that is being pursued in their name and to support this brave experiment that seeks to pursue a middle way between Capitalism (which ‘sacrifices man’) and Communism (which ‘sacrifices the rights of man’) .

The book caused quite a stir at the time and sold close to half a million copies. But it is hardly known today. Listen, Yankee is out of print and has not attracted anything like the critical attention paid to Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, an equally passionate challenge from the Caribbean that accusingly fingers a similar audience, and with which it might be usefully compared.

Elizabeth Burns: Held

The vocabulary used in this collection is perhaps best characterised by what it excludes. There is very little non-standard or ‘new’ English here, very little dialect, vernacular, slang, other languages. The use of proper names is tightly controlled – a few places and people here and there; certainly almost no trace of current affairs, brands, popular culture. It goes without saying that no one talks like this – no one could get far in everyday life with such a restricted stock of words – but it is unusual to find even poetry like this today.

This is one reason why Burns’ poems seem so fragile and precious. It seems almost unbelieveable that they can hold off the teeming heteroglossia that surrounds them. It is certainly noticeable when a slightly low word like ‘shove’ appears (‘An eighteenth-century experiment’) or a slightly specialized one like ‘felucca’ (‘A homecoming’), while the rare specificity of ‘Silloth’, ‘Carstairs’, ‘Cold War’, and ‘Nazis’ draw you into geography and history. And for me these moments give an extra pleasure, not least because they gently remind you that the collection’s persistent themes (bereavement, creativity) always emerge from the evocation of a particular place and time even if the reader couldn’t pin them them on a map or a calendar.

But the most characteristic feature of Held – its signature, even – is its astounding ability to span centuries and continents in a few lines, as the observation of something so humble as a stone coffin, an excavated trench , a river approaching the sea, gives way to a glimpse of its distant past or possible future.

In ‘Transport’, for example, an image of barges laden with gunpowder pulled by horses takes us back to the crofters gathering the kelp ash used in its production and forwards to the sea voyage and explosions on the other side of the ocean. ‘History’ combines in one view – and a sublimely condensed apprehension of human and geological time-scales – the ruins of an abbey and a nuclear power station, ‘whose indestructible / waste is in the seabed where layers of sediment / became the quarried sandstone, heaved over salt marsh // to be turned into an abbey.’

The front cover of the book features a white porcelain moon jar in the British Museum (and the subject of one of the poems), but the material objects in these poems are not trapped in a display case; they are invested with labour, love, power and suffering. As the title suggests, it’s what’s inside them, the secret biographies they harbour, that counts.

Sometimes, it is true, the poems themselves seem a little too laboured and unconvincing. The metaphor of portrait and sitter in ‘Diptych’ feels overextended so that its point becomes unclear. The historical sweep of ‘Holy Water’ from mediaeval monks to nuclear subs packs in more descriptive and explanatory clauses than it needs, I think. And the collection closes with ‘This life’ – whose title I imagine unwittingly duplicates that of the cult TV series: it is the only time we find ourselves in an urban environment, and I wonder if it isn’t just its protagonist (a characteristic ‘you’) but the writer herself who feels uncomfortable there, as she slips into a series of glib, short, generalizing nouns before resting more sure-footedly on the sensuous particular: ‘… but this life with its city streets, // its fizz and mix and mess, its rush of sweet-pea scent, / the lightness of their petals, their brief and lovely bloom.’